Public History Virtual Exhibition: Those Who Have Influenced Me 

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The Establishment of a Free Southern Theater

Fundraising postcard, undated     Amistad Research Center: Tulane University

During a period of intensifying civil rights organizing activity in Mississippi, three young artist activists came together at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS with the belief that theater would “add a valuable and necessary dimension to the current civil rights movement.” John O’Neal and Doris Derby were Field Organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Gilbert Moses was on the staff of the Mississippi Free Press. With backgrounds in both traditional organizing and in the arts, these three young people set out to create an integrated theater company in 1963, realizing the beginnings of their vision in 1964. This short period of time spanned the build-up to and implementation of the Freedom Summer initiative spearheaded by organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC, both working alongside other organizations through the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). This period was an all-hands-on-deck situation for the movement organizations coordinating in Mississippi. Considering that time and energy were used so intentionally during this period, a deeper look at the development of this organization is warranted. This virtual exhibition offers a brief overview of the beginnings of the Free Southern Theater; their purpose and role as communicated through their founding documents, early appeals for support, glimpses of early Tougaloo student training plans, documents of their developing organizational model, O’Neal’s reflections on the relationship between arts and activism, and a sense of the push and pull of getting up and running in the first half of 1964.

Gilbert Moses (left) and John O’Neal (right) photographed in 1965. Moses and O’Neal worked together many years in the Free Southern Theater.

Doris Derby, undated photograph from her own collection displayed on her shelf during an interview. Derby stayed in Jackson when FST relocated to New Orleans and in 1966 joined Southern Media, Inc. working as a field photographer throughout Mississippi

The use of theater as a movement strategy during this famously active time of organizing in the United States South receives little attention, and yet the resources expended by movement organizers to realize the vision of the Free Southern Theater suggests that the effort was considered a valuable and necesary movement strategy. As evidenced in the documents assembled for this virtual exhibition, a great deal of consideration was given to every detail and dollar spent. All action – from the creative to the practical – was performed with purpose and aligned with their overarching aims to gain greater autonomy for Black communities in Mississippi. Through understanding their assessment of the oppressive circumstances facing Black individuals in Mississippi and their rationale for the use of theater in addressing this oppression, our own contemporary efforts to continue the fight for human rights in America is bolstered. Arts and culture as necessary tools in the fight against all forms of oppression often continue to be seen through the lens of the role that they play in marketing; posters, fliers, and banners. As Free Southern Theater demonstrates, the arts play a more expansive role in telling the stories of the oppressed, building solidarity, and projecting visions toward a liberated future. The story of the Free Southern Theater continues to offer a model of artistic practice and production wherein the process itself emulates the outcomes being sought. Free Southern Theater not only produced effective messaging and staged narratives to shift the conversation around civil rights in the South, they enacted a process which itself was a vessel for manifesting the types of expressions of agency and autonomy they sought to make more broadly available throughout Southern society.

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